The rare avis of rock

By Sergio Ariza

Robert Fripp is the most atypical rock star in history, from the way he looks, more like a high school teacher than a guitar legend, to the way he plays, always seated, and in between his personal habits, non-drinking anti-drug, and his signature sound, with classic and jazz influences, without hardly any contact with the blues. Always the innovator and visionary, he has brought new sounds and has left his fingerprint on each piece in which his angular geometric guitar is heard, either on songs by Bowie, Eno, Talking Heads  or his favourite vehicle of expression, King Crimson

Fripp’s music, and the way he plays is as unusual as the way he started his career. In 1968, the guitarist, without ever having sung, answered an ad by Michael and Peter Giles, looking for a vocalist who played organ. So they formed Giles, Giles & Fripp, the trio who would become King Crimson. After recording a record without any acclaim, they inked Ian MacDonald, and Fripp, in an effort to inject vanguard jazz and classic elements into the music, proposed his mate Greg Lake, to join up as a replacement for Peter. McDonald, who up until this point had been the main composer, brought aboard his friend Peter Sinfield to write lyrics for the songs. King Crimson was officially born on January 13, 1969. Before the year was out, they brought the rock world to their feet.

On the 9th of April ‘69 they played their first show, and it was was a resounding success and the voice scattered like stardust. Here was a group that sounded like no other, and was taking rock to unexpected places. On May 14 Fripp gave his first performance sitting down after seeing that this was his way to play, and Jimi Hendrix told him, after declaring that they were the best band he’d ever seen, “Shake my left hand, man - it’s closer to my heart”. He wasn’t the only member of rock royalty that was blown away by them. Three months after their first gig, they found themselves  before half a million people in Hyde Park opening for the Rolling Stones

In October In The Court of the Crimson King was released, expectations were fulfilled, and Pete Townshend called it “an extraordinary masterpiece“. He wasn’t wrong, if King Crimson had only recorded 21st Century Schizoid Man they would already be among the greats. It was logical that people asked where they got this guitarist who mixes jazz, psychedelic, hard and progressive rock and didn’t seem to have any connection to the rest of the guitar Gods of his time, beyond the model of his guitar, a late 50s Les Paul Custom. Of course his debut went beyond his first song and gems such as Epitaph, I Talk to the Wind, or the title track were worth their weight in gold. 

When everything seemed on the road to sure stardom, Fripp’s particular character would shine, he was the driving force behind the group and was carrying the band to new places, something that put him at odds with McDonald and Giles who were looking for a sweeter sound. The duo that had started out with him chose to leave, Fripp backed down and offered to leave himself but his mates said no to that because the band was more his than theirs. On December 16 the original King Crimson gave their last show. In January of 1970 when they began recording In the Wake of Poseidon, Lake also left, leaving him as the only original member left, although Sinfield stayed on as writer. Fripp plays the mellotron and piano on the record, besides the guitar. In the end, he got Lake and Giles to agree to take part on the record. Peter Giles was on bass, Mel Collins made his first appearance on sax and flute, the same for Gordon Haskell who sang one of the best songs on the album, Cadence and Cascade. Fripp arranged almost all of the music and was in top form. He also got back to the acoustic, showing his mastery on a Gibson J-45. The only downside to it is that it’s too similar to the first one.  

The ups and downs of the group became noticeable on Lizard, too focussed on jazz and the cutting edge. Nobody was happy with the recording and Fripp’s authoritarian manner in running the band caused yet another break up. On the next record Fripp signed singer Boz Burrell, who also became bassman after Fripp taught him how to play the instrument, and Ian Wallace on drums. Together with faithful Sinfield and Collins, they recorded a very good album and King Crimson reinvented himself once again. Mixing classical music and, what is stranger, the step towards black music with  R&B tune  Ladies of the Road. However, despite their many rights, the record was problematic for the band, and the tour proved to lay bare all the tension. Fripp got his whip out again and got rid of Sinfield, the only original left. 

If that wasn’t enough, the rest of the band mutinied for more participation in the material. After a disappointing  Earthbound tour, Fripp once again reshaped the band from top to bottom, convinced that for the new material he had in mind, his band wasn’t up to the task. And then he met someone who would change his career. In 1972, Brian Eno, of Roxy Music invited him over to his home studio where he was toying with a new way of recording. Together they would invent what is known as Frippertronics, a live editing technique using a sound ‘loop’ and tape over where you could layer effects, in this case, the guitar.  Fripp would play something, which would then be reproduced on a second recorder with a  few seconds delay, and so on until infinity, making his guitar sound like an entire orchestra. The result was the seedpod No Pussyfooting. In addition, he collaborated with Eno on his debut album, Here Comes the Warm Jets where he plays his incendiary solo on Baby’s on Fire.

But back to King Crimson, if Fripp wanted musicians to accompany him on his prodigious musical incursions he couldn’t have wished for better travel mates than drummer Bill Bruford, who left Yes at their peak, percussionist Jamie Muir, bassist and singer John Wetton, and violinist/keyboardist David Cross. It didn’t take much to show they could follow Fripp’s sinuous paths almost telepathically. The first record they cut was Larks Tongues in Aspic, in which Fripp bets on sound inspired by free improv, close to free jazz, but with the hard vibes of his guitar. The approach is best described by Bruford, “ In Yes there were endless debates about which chord to play with the bass or organ, while in King Crimson no-one told you was given that you should know”. This is evident in the compositions on the record , as in the two parts of the title track, but there is also time for a marvelous suite of traditional songs , Book of Saturday, Exiles (where Fripp gets on the mellotron again) and Easy Money, which show Wetton not only as a great bassist, but also as the best vocalist they’d had since the early days with Lake.   

The sequel doesn’t disappoint: Starless and Bible Black opens with The Great Deceiver, one of the band’s best songs, as powerful as it is instantaneous, Fripp gets back to sounding alien but so inspired. The group, where  Muir was no longer a member, had reached such sound that it was recorded mostly live, then edited and joined to the studio parts. Fripp had found the band of his dreams, and it showed. 

The culmination was Red, the second best record of his career, and one of the most important of its genre. They were reduced to a trio after the departure of  a Cross,  devoured by a brutal rhythm section, so Fripp, Bruford, and Wetton get invaluable help from old mates like Ian McDonald and Mel Collins  and manage  to deliver a record on which 4 of the 5 songs are really amazing. The only bad patch is Providence but can be forgiven easily listening to the powerful instrumental on the title track, whose raw sound would be an influence on grunge and the wonderful Starless where the tone of his guitar in the first bit reaches a beauty rarely found or repeated. The second track shows yet again the chemistry between our 3 protagonists.  

Of course that chemistry wasn’t going to last long, after reaching the peak of his career Fripp has an existential crisis and fed up with the music industry decides to retire. So he tries for  King Crimson to carry on with Bruford, Wetton, and McDonald, but at the point Crimson was totally identified with Fripp, and the idea went nowhere. On September 25, 1974, Fripp announces that King Crimson was finished for good. 

For a time he leaves music, and  he only gets out of this partial break to participate on sporadic recordings of friends like Eno, who he works with on the enormous album Another Green World. In 1975 he also takes part in Peter Gabriel’s debut solo album, but the recording that will brand those years for life happened in Berlin when, on the recommendation of Eno, Bowie asks him to play with him on Heroes.  

On what is possibly his most famous recording, Fripp gets a flawlessly unique sound jumping more than 10 years ahead to the My Bloody Valentine experiments with feedback. Fripp arrived to the studio and after hearing the song once, plugged his Les Paul into his Hiwatt and a fuzz pedal and moved around the room cranking the volume to get that sustained feedback. After 3 takes, producer Tony Visconti saw that this was perfect and decided to use the first 2 cuts and put the 3 all together at once.

The result was so spectacular that Fripp played on a few more of the album’s songs, besides leaving his mark on another great Bowie work, Scary Monsters. Before Fripp had moved to NY and had been seduced by the punk  and newwave scene of the Big Apple. Eno got him hooked on his new love for one of his most intriguing bands , the Talking Heads, but also made friends with members of Blondie, with whom he would go on to collaborate on their best record Parallel Lines. In the same year Fripp returned to the forefront producing 2 records, Sacred Songs by Daryl Hall and Gabriel’s second album. He likes the result enough to want to  get back to his own career and just like that Exposure was released, his first solo record.  

Fripp was back with new energy, exploring the format of a 3 or 4-minute long pop song  with terrific results. His years spent in NY and his first hand contact with punk and new wave made him feel very good. That influence would be seen again on his next group project, when in 1981 he decided to form a new rock band, influenced by the new movement, in particular the Talking Heads, with whom he had worked on I Zimbra, and it would really show. It’s no surprise that Fripp would turn to Adrian Belew who had just worked with David Byrne’s band. It’s clear the confidence Fripp had in him, this being the first time in his career that he would share the band with another guitarist. To complete the quartet he got Bill Brufford and added Tony Levin on bass.  At first they decided to call the band Discipline but when Fripp saw that the result passed with honours his demanding assessment , he decided to go back to the good luck charm King Crimson. The first record they recorded was called Discipline ,which had another big influence, traditional Indonesian music. Fripp was still looking for innovation   from original sources. More proof that his mind was in sync with those who made Remain in Light, was his collaboration on the bold My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Byrne and Eno, released in 1981. 

After 2 more records with his post-punk band Fripp said goodbye once again to King Crimson. In that same year, 1984, he began giving guitar lessons and started a new teaching project called Guitar Craft. Since then he has  been dedicated more to theory (as in his special attunement New Standard) than practice, although he has dusted off King Crimson on more than one occasion adding  new members to a list that easily exceeds 20. Of course the only one who can reclaim the crown is the link between the different and yet so admirable pieces  such as  21st Century Schizoid Man, Starless and Matte Kudasai, and the one and only Robert Fripp.